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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Mike Quill, Irish-American Trade Unionist

Michael Joseph “Red Mike” Quill, one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), a union founded by subway workers in New York City that expands to represent employees in other forms of transit, is born on September 18, 1905, in Gortloughera, near Kilgarvan, County Kerry.

Quill is the seventh among five sons and three daughters of John Daniel Quill, farmer, of Gortloughera, and Margaret Quill (née Lynch), of Ballyvourney, County Cork. He attends Kilgarvan national school until early adolescence. The family has strong republican sympathies and he serves with an Irish Republican Army (IRA) flying column during the Irish Civil War.

In 1926, Quill emigrates to New York City. After a series of brief jobs, in 1929 he secures employment with the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) as a subway station change-maker. Attracted to socialism and militant industrial unionism by his reading of James Connolly, in 1933 he is one of a small group of workers seeking to initiate a trade union independent of the IRT’s complacent company union. Comprised largely of ex-IRA men linked by membership of Clan na Gael and the leftist Irish Workers’ Clubs, his group soon joins forces with a New York transit-industry organising effort by the Communist Party, resulting in the launch in April 1934 of the Transport Workers Union (TWU).

With a convivial personality and a flair for oratory, Quill quickly emerges as one of the union’s most effective organisers. During 1935 he leaves his IRT job to work full-time as union organiser. In December 1935 he is elected TWU president, a position he holds until his death. By autumn 1936 the TWU has established a solid base on the IRT, and intensifies organisation on New York’s other transit lines: subways, buses, elevated trains, and trolleys. In May 1937 the TWU affiliates with the incipient Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). After winning, mostly by large majorities, a series of union representation elections in May–June 1937, the TWU negotiates closed-shop contracts with various New York transit companies, obtaining for its 30,000 members substantial wage increases and benefits and a work-week reduction to forty-eight hours. The ethnic profile of the TWU, which is colloquially nicknamed “the Irish union,” reflects that of New York’s transit workforce, about half of which is Irish-born.

First elected to the New York City Council in November 1937 as candidate of the American Labor Party, Quill serves on the body intermittently until 1949. After 1940 he leads the TWU into expansion outside New York, organising in mass transit in other cities, in airlines, and in railroads. Despite modest membership numbers (135,000 by the mid-1960s), the TWU is the United States‘ largest transit union, and Quill maintains a high public profile, owing to his union’s situation in a key economic sector, its base in the country’s largest city, and the colourful and the controversial features of his personality and politics. The 1940 municipal buy-out of New York’s private subway companies and subsequent evolution of a unified civically operated transport system precipitates a lengthy TWU struggle to establish collective bargaining rights and procedures for the transport workforce as public employees. This campaign, by setting precedents for public-sector union organisation nation-wide, marks Quill’s most enduring legacy to the American labour movement.

Quill denies repeated charges that he is a Communist, while retorting that he would “rather be called a Red by the rats than a rat by the Reds.” Communists hold influential positions at all levels in the TWU until the union’s December 1948 convention, when, after months of rancorous conflict over policy, he secures the expulsion from union office of all Communist Party members. His own politics, nevertheless, remain conspicuously leftist in the America of the 1950s and 1960s, as he condemns both the McCarthyite anti-Red witch-hunt and the Vietnam War. Elected a CIO vice-president in 1950, he eschews redefinition as “a labour statesman,” and advocates a national labour party and nationalisation of major industries. A strenuous opponent of racial discrimination by employers and within trade-union structures, he actively supports the black civil rights movement. He is the only top CIO official to oppose its 1955 merger with the conservative, craft-dominated American Federation of Labor (AFL), which he accuses of “the three Rs” of raiding, racketeering, and racism.

Quill’s final battle is his most dramatic. On January 1, 1966 he defies public-sector anti-strike legislation and a court injunction and leads TWU Local 100 into the first total subway-and-bus strike in New York City history, paralysing traffic for twelve days. Arrested on January 4, Quill, who has a history of serious heart disease, collapses during admission to prison and is transferred to hospital under police custody. On January 13 the strike is settled with a 15 percent wage increase, the highest of Quill’s TWU presidency. On January 28, several days after discharge from hospital, he dies of heart failure in his home. He is interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York, after a funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, his casket draped by the Irish tricolor.

Speaking after his death, Martin Luther King Jr. eulogises Quill with the following: “Mike Quill was a fighter for decent things all his life—Irish independence, labor organization, and racial equality. He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow-man. When the totality of a man’s life is consumed with enriching the lives of others, this is a man the ages will remember—this is a man who has passed on but who has not died. Negroes had desperately needed men like Mike Quill who fearlessly said what was true even when it offended. That is why Negroes shall miss Mike Quill.”

Quill marries Maria Theresa O’Neill of Cahersiveen, County Kerry, in 1937. They have one son. Maria dies in 1959. He then marries Shirley Garry (née Uzin) of Brooklyn, New York, his long-serving administrative assistant, in 1961. They have no children. The Michael J. Quill Centre at Ardtully, Kilgarvan, County Kerry, houses a commemorative museum.

(From: “Quill, Michael Joseph” by Lawrence William White, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie | Pictured: Irish-American Trade Unionist Mike Quill during a visit to the White House in 1938)


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Birth of John Purroy Mitchel, the 95th Mayor of New York City

John Purroy Mitchel, the 95th mayor of New York City (1914-17), is born on July 19, 1879 at Fordham, Bronx, New York City. He is remembered for his short career as leader of reform politics in New York as well as for his early death as a U.S. Army Air Service officer in the last months of World War I.

Mitchel is born to James Mitchel, a New York City fire marshal, and Mary Purroy who works as a schoolteacher until her marriage. His father is Irish, and Presbyterian in faith, the son of the famous Irish nationalist John Mitchel, and a veteran of the Confederate States Army. Two of his uncles were killed fighting for the Confederacy. His maternal grandfather, Venezuelan-born Juan Bautista Purroy, was that country’s consul in New York, which makes Mitchel the first Mayor of New York City of Latino descent. His great-grandfather, José Joaquin de Purroy, was a lawyer from Spain who settled in Venezuela. He graduates from a Catholic secondary school at Fordham Preparatory School in the late 1890s. He obtains his bachelor’s degree from Columbia College in 1899 and graduates from New York Law School in 1902 with honors. He then pursues a career as a private attorney.

In December 1906, Mitchel’s career takes flight when he is hired by family friend and New York City corporation counsel William B. Ellison to investigate the office of John F. Ahearn, borough president of Manhattan, for incompetence, waste and inefficiency. As a result, Ahearn is dismissed as borough president of Manhattan. He begins his career as assistant corporation counsel and then becomes a member of the Commissioners of Accounts, from which he investigates city departments. He gains results and recognition for his thorough and professional investigations into various city departments and high-ranking officials. Along with the help of Henry Bruère and other staff members of the Bureau of Municipal Research, he turns the insignificant Commissioners of Accounts into an administration of importance.

The young Mitchel’s reputation as a reformer garners him the support of the anti-Tammany forces. In 1909, he is elected president of the New York City Board of Aldermen, an organization similar to the current New York City Council. As president of the Board of Aldermen, he is able to enact fiscal reforms. He cuts waste and improves accounting practices. Also, he unsuccessfully fights for a municipal-owned transit system and the city sees him vote against allowing the Interborough Rapid Transit and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit companies permission to extend their existing subway and elevated lines. For a six-week period in 1910 after current Mayor William J. Gaynor is injured by a bullet wound, he serves as acting mayor. His biggest accomplishment during his short tenure is the act of neutrality during a garment industry strike.

As the mayoral election approaches in 1913, the Citizens Municipal Committee of 107 sets out to find a candidate that will give New York “a non-partisan, efficient and progressive government.” They are assisted in this endeavor by the Fusion Executive Committee, led by Joseph M. Price of the City Club of New York. After nine ballots, Mitchel is nominated as a candidate for mayor. During his campaign, he focuses on making City Hall a place of decency and honesty. He also focuses on business as he promises New Yorkers that he will modernize the administrative and financial machinery and the processes of city government.

At the age of 34, Mitchel is elected mayor on the Republican Party slate as he wins an overwhelming victory, defeating Democratic candidate Edward E. McCall by 121,000 votes, thus becoming the second youngest mayor of New York City. He is often referred to as “The Boy Mayor of New York.”

Mitchel’s administration introduces widespread reforms, particularly in the Police Department, which has long been highly corrupt and which is cleaned up by Mitchel’s Police Commissioner Arthur H. Woods. Woods is able to break up gangs and in his first year in office and he arrests more than 200 criminals. Woods also launches an attack on robbery, prostitution, pickpocketing and gambling. Woods ultimately transforms the police department into a crime-fighting machine. Mitchel aims to get rid of corruption wherever he sees it. His administration sets out to restructure and modernize New York City and its government. He is able to expand the city’s regulatory activities, runs the police department more honestly and efficiently and, much like in 1910, he maintains impartiality during garment and transportation workers strikes in 1916.

At 1:30 p.m. on April 17, 1914, Michael P. Mahoney fires a gun at the mayor as Mitchel is getting in his car to go to lunch. The bullet ricochets off a pedestrian and hits Frank Lyon Polk, New York City’s corporation counsel, in the chin.

Mitchel’s early popularity is soon diminished due to his fiscal policies and vision of education. He is heavily criticized for combining vocational and academic courses. He begins to trim the size of the Board of Education and attempts to control teachers’ salaries.

Mitchel advocates universal military training to prepare for war. In a speech at Princeton University on March 1, 1917, he describes universal military training as “the [only] truly democratic solution to the problem of preparedness on land.” His universal military training alienates New Yorkers and is not popular. Many feel he focuses too much on military patriotism and is indifferent to politics. This soon leads to a loss of support for his re-election bid in 1917.

Mitchel runs again for mayor in the highly charged wartime election of 1917. His re-election bid takes a hit as many New Yorkers feel he is socializing with the social elite, focuses too much on the economy and efficiency and his concern on military preparedness. He narrowly loses the Republican primary to William M. Bennett after a contentious recount but then runs for re-election as a pro-war Fusion candidate.

Mitchel’s main campaign theme is patriotism, with a media campaign that denounces Germans, Irish, and Jews as unpatriotic sympathizers with the enemy cause. He runs against Republican Bennett, antiwar Socialist Morris Hillquit, and the Tammany Hall Democrat John F. Hylan. Hylan ridicules and denounces Mitchel’s upper-class reform as an affront to democracy and to the voters. He wins by a landslide without taking a clear position on the war. Mitchel barely beats Hillquit for second place.

After failing to get re-elected, Mitchel joins the Air Service as a flying cadet, completing training in San Diego and obtaining the rank of major. On the morning of July 6, 1918, when returning from a short military training flight to Gerstner Field, near Lake Charles, Louisiana, his plane suddenly goes into a nose dive, causing him to fall from his plane due to an unfastened seatbelt. He plummets 500 feet to his death, his body landing in a marsh about a half mile south of the field.

Mitchel’s body is returned to Manhattan, New York City. His funeral is held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City on July 11, 1918.

Mitchel Field on Long Island is named for him in 1918. A bronze memorial plaque with his likeness is also affixed between the two stone pylons at the western end of Hamilton Hall, the main college building at Columbia University. A plaque of his likeness is on the entrance to the base of the Central Park Reservoir elevated cinder jogging track at 90th Street and Fifth Avenue entrance to Central Park. The New York City Fire Department operates a fireboat named John Purroy Mitchel from 1921 to 1966.